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Unread 04-27-2007, 05:51 PM
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General der Panzer
 
Join Date: Jan 2005
Location: Eden
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Default War Party

Mark Snell


War Party


He landed on the sleeping sentry and straddled tight with his legs, pinning the arms, butt resting on left hip, left hand covering the mouth while the right drove the sharp-tipped dagger straight down hard through soft neck. Only Lukas heard the quiet crack of vertebra and windpipe and that last soft yelp, felt the warm blood cooling through his soaked glove. The swirling winter wind blew snow into rising whirls off the ground and hid sound, muted distant barrages, impaired sight. Lukas pulled hard on the knife and rolled down into the shallow crater. He’d killed another back a hundred meters or so. That one wasn’t sleeping. But Lukas moved undetected in the night, knew how to use wind, cover, shadows, and had jumped on the Russian’s back, pushed his face down, and pierced his throat from right to left. He had pushed against the weight so Lukas knew the guard was conscious, had felt the cold blade sear before his final faint squeal.

He lay still a full minute before crawling up and signaling his thirteen men to move up and form a wedge, /\, behind the crater, taking cover in shell holes or piles of stone, sergeants Jonas Wodtke and Anton Belin in the center. They all had seen the worst of the fighting and survived, brushed shoulders with death, lost compassion—some more than others. Each wore Russian white parkas and felt-lined boots and wool gloves. Other than the two German flamethrowers, they all carried Russian submachine guns.

After sliding back down and sneaking up to the opposite edge, he peeked across a pock-marked square in Stalingrad’s factory district: outlines, skeletal remains of broken workshops, warehouses, office buildings—visible to his accustomed eyes, barely. His mind evaluated: Wind’s strong, snow covering everything, dark night. Good. The smashed buildings look like lame, wounded horses waiting to fall. Already dead.

A hundred meters west, beneath a wrecked office building, rested a large basement once used by Lukas’ reconnaissance company as a headquarters—large storage rooms in back, dirt floors, two meter ceiling, double door opening facing east, vents on northeast and southeast corners. Lukas scanned for movement: Strange, we hunted them. Now they hunt us. Not tonight. Noise creates quiet. Good. Landscape of the moon.

He crawled back to the middle of the wedge and spoke in low tones to the sergeants, “Best I can tell nothing’s changed: two outposts, north and south, one man in each. Anton, north vent with Herzer and Knappe. That sentry’s yours. Be quiet when you kill him. I’m south with Siebel and Vogt. The rest with Jonas. One short burst from each flamethrower, grenades after. Don’t rush the door till they stop coming out, Jonas. I’ll cover the storage rooms. Anton, cut off the exit. They all die. We won’t have long. Grab and go.”

Both answered at the same time, “Yes sir.”

“I’ve got 03:18.”

“Check.”

“Ten minutes, Jonas. Then move up. 03:55, we flame ‘em.”

Again, both, “Check.”

“If anything goes wrong, go then. Now or never.”

The three soldiers clasped hands, nodded heads, and moved out. Anton to the right side of the wedge and lying with Dieter Herzer and Klaus Knappe. Neither began as part of the recon company but had stayed around after the failed attempts to take and hold the factory district in October and early November, their combat engineer company extinguished in one bloody night. Niklas Siebel and Finn Vogt, also combat engineers, joined up with what remained of Lukas’ reconnaissance company in mid-January. Lukas linked up with them on the wedge’s left.

Anton gave orders to his team, “Don’t spark till the last minute. Shouldn’t be anything between us and the outpost but good cover. But if we’re spotted, we go.”

Lukas did the same to his, “Siebel, five meters behind Vogt. We’re on our bellies all the way. Let’s go.” And Lukas led the way. In Anton’s team Herzer carried the flamethrower and followed.

Anton led his men north, stopping ten meters behind the guard standing by the vent trying to stay warm—new coat, fur-lined hat with ear covers pulled down—rubbing his hands together while his rifle leaned against the wall and he looked up at low, fast-moving heavy clouds. Anton snuck forward and rushed, wrapping his coated left forearm over the guard’s mouth and slitting his throat and pulling him down, away from the vent. He cut shallow and missed the windpipe but sliced the carotid. Blood spewed and Anton held his arm over the Russian’s mouth till he quit flopping around and died: Sorry young man. Join the dead. You’ll have many comrades. Not for a moment did Lukas think about the life of the other guard.

At 03:52 the three teams were in place. Warm smells and firelight escaped the man-sized vents. Forty meters from the basement’s opening, spread out in line, Jonas and the seven men in his team hid and prepared grenades—anxious, cold, ready, hungry. Confidence ran high.

*

All morning Lukas and Anton hid under a fallen metal door propped against a pile of rubble covered and surrounded by ice and snow and watched from a couple of hundred meters away. They’d dug through the snow and slipped under, covering the entry and then digging a small opening facing the basement. A regiment of infantry moved past, heading west toward pockets of German resistance, remnants of 11 Corps moving to meet Manstien’s mythic relief column. Then, later in the morning, a supply platoon set up in the basement. The wind picked up and snow began falling in the afternoon, so Lukas and Anton worked their way back to the cellar in which they had stayed since the Russians had split Stalingrad in two a week earlier and separated the bulk of the 6th Army from 11 Corps. Command had disintegrated and the men formed into small groups—surrendering or trying to flee west or hiding underground waiting to be found and killed.

Lukas suffered no delusions about the possibility of relief. He moved his men east, toward the Volga, remembering and finding a cellar under a smashed tool room in the eastern section of the tractor factory. The cellar’s ceiling wasn't but a meter high, but there was just enough room for them all. Cut and stacked wood filled the left side of the single room, covering a third of the space and almost touching the roof. They had moved in during the night, covered their tracks, and disappeared underground: no fires, little food, constant cold and darkness, no cigarettes. Russian patrols searched, tank’s loudspeakers playing a recorded message, “Von Paulus has surrendered. Tick-tick-tick-tick-tick-tick-tick-tick. Every eight seconds, a German soldier dies in Stalingrad. Tick-tick-tick-tick-tick-tick-tick-tick. Stalingrad, mass grave.” Over and over till the weather turned. Six days in the cramped space huddled close together but each alone in his thoughts hour after silent, black hour and with what little cabbage soup they had almost gone, the time had come for action.

*

Siebel pressed down on the gas and fuel triggers and hit the spark with the same motion. When Herzer saw the flash, he did the same. Mixing compressed hydrogen and gasoline ignited and sprayed into the basement from opposite corners. The quick blasts consumed oxygen. Lukas and Anton tossed two grenades each into the holes. The double doors flew open and Russians—scared, confused, doomed, breathless—ran out into grenades and bullets.

Both Anton and Lukas took a deep breath and jumped down through the vents. They knew the two storage rooms on the west wall would retain air and shield any occupants, more than likely officers, from the grenades. Siebel and Vogt stayed outside to watch the southern side and Herzer and Knappe the north. Shocked and wounded soldiers lay on the ground or stumbled about.

Moving through the smoke from opposite ends of the square basement, they killed every man in sight. Lukas, eyes burning in the leftover gasoline vapors, crouched and waited by the back rooms’ doors while Anton moved behind a desk and waited on survivors trying to return through the main exit. Jonas’ team killed over a dozen before they stopped trying to get out. Eight fell back into the basement, firing their rifles out the door, falling to the ground, trying to catch their breath. Anton stepped out from behind the desk and shot them all, a short burst of shells for each.

When Jonas’ team raced into the basement, none of them noticed the smell of burned flesh or death, but all smelled food. They took up positions around Lukas. Bernhoff, the largest, yelled and kicked the left door in and jumped sideways to the ground. Nothing. He repeated the routine on the right. Again, nothing. Lukas charged the left, Anton the right. No Russians in either room, but both held riches beyond imagination: ten-liter pots of warm soup with meat and vegetables, hundreds of round loaves of fresh baked bread, burlap sacks full of potatoes, and cases of vodka and cigarettes in the left room—crates of grenades and ammunition and blankets and boots and gloves and fur-lined caps in the right. Lukas thought: All this for only thirty-six dead Russians who’d never seen combat.

“Empty the sacks of potatoes and fill them with bread. Bernhoff, Ross, grab a bucket of soup each. Let’s get going. One crate, two men. That means we can carry five—two ammunition, two grenades, one blankets. If you need new boots or gloves, get them now. Let’s move,” Lukas barked.

Jorg Froebbel, who’d served under Lukas since ‘41, spoke up, “Captain, I’d rather have the vodka than the soup.”

Heads nodded and Lukas relented, “Okay, Bernhoff, grab a case.”

Froebbel added, “Two, and some cigarettes?”

“One potato sack of cigarettes. That’s all. One crate of grenades.” Lukas said.

As quickly as they’d come and killed they took and left, heading back toward the Volga and their cramped cellar six hundred meters away. They ran in single file, side by side, two per crate, guns shouldered with straps, a burlap sack of bread slung over backs. Lukas leading the way through the ruins, knowing enemy units were west and speed meant safety. Following twenty meters behind, Anton stopped at intervals and checked for Russians. The wind blew loud, but Lukas wasn’t sure if the sounds of the fighting had been sufficiently subdued, if a Russian infantry unit had heard. So they ran without consideration. The snow fell and joined the blowing whirls and covered their tracks.

Feeling safe after sitting quiet for thirty minutes and the wind gaining strength above, Lukas told Jonas to build a fire. They all shivered and the soup and bread had frozen. Once the fire gave off dim light, Anton opened a crate of blankets and passed them around. And when burning stronger, Froebbel placed four chunks of cement in a square around the fire and sat a square piece of steel on top and one of the buckets of soup and several loaves of bread on the flat metal. Vogt handed out cigarettes and bottles of vodka. Soon the fire roared and the cellar thawed along with the soup and bread and men. Sitting covered in blankets, smoking, drinking, and anticipating food.

The raging blizzard calmed any Russian intention of patrol and darkened any light escaping the cellar’s vents. Every creature alive sought shelter. The soldiers removed the webbing from their helmets and Froebbel poured soup. Soup full of potatoes and meat, hot, and they dipped bread and ate and talked.

Froebbel said, “Like the old days, eh?”

Then Anton, “The storm won’t last forever. Soon we’ll be in the dark again—cold.”

Then Lukas, “Enjoy the moment. I’m drunk and warm. That’s enough.”

Anton added, “For now.”

Lukas scanned the room and saw Siebel and Herzer writing letters, and Knappe and Ross smoking and drinking. Anton and Froebbel continued to talk about home and fallen comrades, and how long the food and vodka would last. Lukas heard the words, the fire, the storm, but didn’t listen. He sat with his eyes open but his mind closed in space, opened by the vodka to memories of home and family: the green farm, his wife—Anna—wearing her long hair down, looking into his eyes. When the room began spinning he curled up in blankets and closed his eyes, thoughts losing hold and scattering to fragmented images and finally nothing, darkness, relief. Anton and Froebbel laughed at him and continued talking.

“I think we should eat all the food, break into twos, and then surrender when the weather turns. The longer we wait the less chance any of us have.”

Froebbel replied, “Lukas will never surrender. Remember when we found Tobias tied to a pole—castrated, tongue cut out—suffocated by his own cock and balls?” Anton nodded while Froebbel continued, “Lukas told me that day he’d never surrender or take another prisoner. And he hasn’t since.”

Anton said, “I’m not ready to die.”

“Well, I’m ready for one more drink and then joining Lukas.” Froebbel took a shot from the bottle and then went and lay beside Lukas.

Anton took off his boots and leaned against the wall beside Froebbel and kept his eyes on the twinkling flames: Every fire fades. Every life ends.

Respite ended with cramping bowels for Lukas. Embers glowed but no fire. As he neared the cellar’s one closet, their makeshift latrine, the smell gagged him. Before the raid, the cold and lack of food prevented odor from building up and escaping. Lukas could tell he wasn’t the first up. After leaving the closet he picked his way around sleeping men and slid a large square of metal that served as a door with both hands, moving it enough so he could stick his head out. The wind blew weaker but the snow still fell and even though it was late afternoon, low hanging clouds blocked light and evening darkness had set in. Lukas lowered his head and pushed up on the heavy iron piece and Anton joined in.

“How’s it look?”

“Storm’s slowing. They’ll have patrols out tonight.”

“Can we keep a fire?”

“I don’t know.”

They returned to their spot by the embers. Froebbel was in the latrine. Herzer had retrieved a couple of buckets of snow and they were melting on the metal over the embers. Holding on to the last bit of heat—huddled tight, thirsty—the men had moved up as close to the hot coals as possible without burning their bare hands and feet. Lukas and Anton stayed back a ways, not far, lying on their sides and facing each other.

Anton whispered, “I don’t think I can take another week of hiding.”

“The way the latrine smells we can’t hide here anyway. We’ve got to move.”

“If the weather’s clearing, or even if it doesn’t for another month, the Russians will find us eventually. What’s the point? Bury ourselves another week or two and then raid again? The next supply station we assault will have at least a full platoon of real soldiers guarding it, not just the supply platoon.”

“What do you think we should do, go find a company and attack and get it over with?” Lukas asked.

“No, I think we should break up into threes and fours and hide a few days, then surrender.”

“I’m not surrendering, Anton. No way,” Lukas said louder, causing the men around the fire to stop talking and look. He lowered his voice but not the intensity, “Look at everyone. We’re all wearing Russian clothes. You think the Russians will let us surrender?”

Herzer, by the fire, spoke up, “I’m with Lukas. No way I’m surrendering.”

Siebel said, “I don’t know. Certain death or at least some possibility.”

Lukas asked, “There’s possibility in surrender?”

Anton replied, “For you maybe. You’re a captain. Officers get better treatment.”

Lukas addressed them all, “I’m not going to surrender. But when the weather clears, I’m not going into hiding again either.”

Anton asked, “Then what, attack, suicide?”

Returning from the latrine, Froebbel said, “How can a dead man commit suicide? We’ve been dead since December, maybe September. I’ve had it with hiding in the dark too, freezing. To hell with it. I say we eat and get drunk and then build a big fire outside and wait for them to come to us.”

Herzer added, “Yeah, what the hell, let’s kill as many of the bastards as we can.”

Bernhoff agreed, “I bet we could finish off the vodka this evening. And then we can fight like the Russians, drunk.”

They all laughed and Lukas said, “Whoever wants to leave can go, head south to the gorge, hold up in there. Anyone?”

No one spoke up. After a long pause, Lukas said, “Put some logs on the fire. Let’s get warm again. Knappe, Vogt, start taking wood outside. Ross, Herzer, first watch.”

Froebbel started warming soup and bread again and they all started drinking except Anton. He covered himself in blankets and leaned against the wall. Lukas joined him.

“Anton, if you want to leave and try to surrender it’s okay. The men will understand. No one questions your bravery.”

“I’m not ready to die. I want to see my family again. I just can’t give up on living and making it through this.”

“Pack your gear and get ready. You need to get as far away as possible. It’s 18:00 hours now. I figure the snow will stop in the next hour, so you better leave in the next half hour.”

“Why don’t you come with me, Lukas? You know you have a better chance than me.”

“I can’t leave the men. And even if I managed to survive and make it home someday, I don’t want my wife to see what I’ve become.”

“You haven’t become anything, Lukas. The war has changed all of us for the worse. It’s not your fault. You’re a good man.”

“I’m not a good man anymore. How that happened doesn’t matter. Everything ends tonight for me. I’m ready. Pack, I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

Lukas moved to the fire and told the men Anton was leaving. None objected. Niklas Siebel spoke up and said he also wanted to go. The rest began writing a final letter while drinking and eating. Lukas opened his pack and removed several items and then returned to Anton's side.

“Here put these on,” Lukas said as he handed Anton a captain’s uniform. “It’s beat up, but I still have the overcoat, not as warm as the Russian’s, but at least they won’t shoot you on site. Siebel will have to wear what he has on.”

“I can’t wear a captain’s uniform.”

“Sure you can. It’s your only chance.”

Jonas reported that the wood was ready and the snow had stopped. Lukas ordered the men to get dressed and form up outside. The moonless night remained dark even without the falling snow. Only a slight breeze blew. Anton and Siebel carried their weapons, a half bucket of soup, a couple of loaves of bread, and a few blankets.

Pointing south, Lukas said, “Move to the Tsarista Gorge, a kilometer away. Stay close to the river. Find one of the caves the Russians had used and hide there for as long as you can.”

Anton said, “Thanks for keeping me alive this long, Lukas.”

“I hope you make it, Anton. Good luck.”

Thirty minutes after Anton and Siebel headed south, Lukas took a three quarters full bottle of vodka and stuffed a strip of cloth he’d cut from a blanket into the lip. The remaining men had taken up positions. Lukas lit the cloth and waited. Then he threw the bottle onto the tall stack of wood and kindling and watched the fire grow.
__________________
"Only the dead have seen the end of war."
Plato

Last edited by KG_Soldier; 04-29-2007 at 02:24 AM..
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